Yoga’s combined focus on mindfulness, breathing and physical movements brings health benefits with regular participation. Yoga participants report better sleep, increased energy levels and muscle tone, relief from muscle pain and stiffness, improved circulation and overall better general health. The breathing aspect of yoga can benefit heart rate and blood pressure.
The 2012 “Yoga in America” survey, conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of Yoga Journal, shows that the number of adult practitioners in the US is 20.4 million, or 8.7 percent. The survey reported that 44 percent of those not practicing yoga said they are interested in trying it.
Yoga came to the attention of an educated western public in the mid 19th century along with other topics of Hindu philosophy. The first Hindu teacher to actively advocate and disseminate aspects of yoga to a western audience was Swami Vivekananda, who toured Europe and the United States in the 1890s (however, Vivekananda put little emphasis on the physical practices of Hatha Yoga in his teachings).
The physical asanas of hatha yoga have a tradition that goes back to at least the 15th century, but they were not widely practiced in India prior to the early 20th century. Hatha yoga was advocated by a number of late 19th to early 20th century gurus in India, including Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in south India, Swami Sivananda in the north, Sri Yogendra in Bombay, and Swami Kuvalayananda in Lonavala, near Bombay. In 1918, Pierre Bernard, the first famous American yogi, opened the Clarkstown Country Club, a controversial retreat center for well-to-do yoga students, in New York State. In the 1960s, several yoga teachers, most notably B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, Swami Vishnu-devananda, and Swami Satchidananda became active and popular in the West. A hatha “yoga boom” followed in the 1980s, as Dean Ornish, MD, a medical researcher and follower of Swami Satchidananda, connected hatha yoga to heart health, legitimizing hatha yoga as a purely physical system of health exercises outside of counter culture or esotericism circles, and unconnected to a religious denomination.
The more classical approaches of hatha yoga, such as Iyengar Yoga, move at a more deliberate pace, emphasize proper alignment and execution and hold asanas for a longer time. They aim to gradually improve flexibility, balance, and strength. Other approaches, such as Ashtanga or Power Yoga, shift between asanas quickly and energetically. More recently, contemporary approaches to yoga, developed by Vanda Scaravelli and others, invite students to become their own authority in yoga practice by offering principle-based approaches to yoga that can be applied to any form.